As an ex-actuary, whenever I read outside my admittedly narrow area of expertise—mortality, finance, demographics, insurance, financial and material risk management—I assess whether an author/writer has done what I would do: make sure all the data is included, from all sources; sift and analyze; use logic and risk perception to come to conclusions; and write up in a comprehensive, coherent manner. Michael Shellenberger, head of his own institute, Environmental Progress (which seems, to this untutored eye, firmly fixed on the second aspect at the expense of the first, with a basic expansionist philosophy that I find often in discussions but which is usually intellectually optimistic at the expense of realism), has written a book, “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All,” that I eagerly anticipated. I’m one of the many philosophically and fiscally conservative folks who have turned to Extinction Rebellion because modern politics cannot shift us from fossil fuels fast enough to prevent global heating of worrisome proportions (put simply, at +1C, can we keep under +2C or, at worst, +3C or even +4C, any of which mean what exactly?). In Extinction Rebellion we’re all about the science—centered on the labor of the heroes of the IPCC, but if necessary looking beyond the over-careful IPCC to evaluate true risk)—and we focus on the risks humanity faces and how alarmed we need to be.
So I’m ripe for discussions on alarmism: should we be alarmed about the increasing likelihood of +2C and should we relax about +4C? Well, Apocalypse Never is well written, in a breezy PR style, but flies all over the place in terms of satisfying my essential questions. Instead, it’s a keenly felt plea for “environmental humanism … over apocalyptic environmentalism” that often degenerates into attacks on all and every aspect of modern emissions mitigation. As clear as Shellenberger’s love for wildlife (in an idealized, “let’s visit” way) is, as clear as his passion for electrification and modernization is (and this is one matter I agree with him on), more clear is his hatred of all and sundry amongst climate activists, Democrats, and (sadly) XR. Apocalypse Never is chock full of impressive-sounding references, but they’re cherry picked in a way that suits an election pamphlet instead of a book that claims to honor IPCC science (which he either mostly ignores or attacks). Shellenberger never addresses the body of IPCC reports in their totality, instead chipping at the edges of those aspects of climactic change that remain so complex that only now, after three decades of IPCC work and after +1C, can the fingerprint of carbon-induced heating be discerned. His treatment of tipping points and storms and sea-level rise are slippery tosh, and on the subject of wildfires, especially here in my country of Australia, this book is risible. Shellenberger’s approach to the future is to not worry but to trust in industrial development, and part of this is the championing of nuclear energy. I had looked forward to his analysis of nuclear energy’s role in the armory of zero-carbon deployments, which I’m keenly interested in, but even here he disappoints, offering standard pro-nuclear propaganda while Rottweiler-ing at renewables.
Overall, my high hopes for Apocalypse Never to engage me with a fact-based, policy-specific prescription for humanity in these darkening days were roundly dashed. I’ll continue to follow Shellenberger and Environmental Progress, because they do have something to offer on the vital debates we’re engaged in, but this book is mean-spirited sophistry that is dangerous. To be avoided.